8. Paper Prepared in the Department of State1


Our initial assessment is that the coup leaders were principally motivated by a desire to seize power from the Mohammedzai clan/family, which has dominated Afghanistan for 150 years.2 The leaders, mostly military officers, appear to be young, leftist and nationalistic. Some elements of the Afghan Communist party are associated with coup leaders, and one party member has reportedly been named Minister of Finance. There are no indications, however, of Soviet complicity in the coup. The coup seems to have been hurriedly planned and the Soviets may have been informed about it at the last moment. The Soviets have traditionally acted with restraint toward Afghanistan. Although they had probably become somewhat disillusioned with President Daoud, we do not think they would have tried to take over this important non-aligned country. Although the Soviets are probably not displeased with events, they may be cautious about exerting overt and conspicuous influence in order not to unduly alarm Afghanistan’s neighbors.

Whatever the facts, we will have to deal with the probable perceptions of the Iranians and Pakistanis, as well as the US press and public, that the new regime is little more than a Soviet proxy. Pakistan will be alarmed and its acute sense of insecurity further enhanced if they believe themselves to be virtually surrounded by Soviet-leaning regimes—India and Afghanistan. The Shah will see this as confirmation of his “worst-case scenario”—the encirclement of Iran by the Communists. The US press and public may portray the situation as a new “Horn of Africa”. It is worth noting that the Kabul events will attract [Page 17] more than ordinary attention in the third world, since a ministerial-level meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement had been scheduled to meet in Kabul May 6–10.3

One immediate task is to share our information and our assessments with the Paks and Iranians and try to dissuade any hasty moves on their part. Our Embassies’ initial assessments are that neither will move under present conditions. Such moves might set off a chain-reaction in the area. We will also be closely watching the Afghan/Soviet border for signs of any Soviet troop movements.

Afghanistan had been making slow but steady economic progress. Iran and other OPEC countries had promised the Daoud Government substantial economic assistance and they now may have second thoughts. Our USAID program runs about $20 million a year and is concentrated on agricultural, public health and educational programs in rural areas. In addition, we have about 95 Peace Corps volunteers in Afghanistan almost all of whom work in Kabul. The only significant U.S. commercial interest is that Pan American has a 49% share of the Afghan national airline.

In the next few days we will have to make decisions on the following matters.

1. Diplomatic Recognition—We usually recognize new regimes if they control the machinery of government and the countryside and if they agree to honor international commitments made by the previous regime. It is still too early to know whether or not the new government is in full control. If there are public perceptions that the new regime is Communist, there may be political pressures to withhold recognition. The Soviets may extend recognition very soon.

2. Safety of Americans—There are about 1,000 Americans in Kabul. There are no reported American casualties and the foreign community in Kabul has not been threatened. If heavy fighting resumes, we will have to consider whether or not to try an evacuation.

3. The Soviet Angle—There have already been speculative press reports describing this as a “communist coup”. As mentioned above, we have no evidence of Soviet involvement, although the new leadership may include leftists. However, the public and Congress may perceive this as another Soviet victory and there may be pressures to do something about it.

  1. Source: Carter Library, National Security Affairs, Brzezinski Material, Country File, Box 1, Afghanistan: 1/77–3/79. Confidential. Drafted by Hornblow (NEA/PAB) and cleared by Saunders. Attached but not printed is an April 29 covering memorandum from Tarnoff to Brzezinski. At the top right of the covering memorandum an unknown hand wrote: “ZB has seen.”
  2. The Embassy first reported the coup in telegram 3239 from Kabul, April 27 (1725Z), which relayed the announcement from Radio Afghanistan that “Daoud is gone completely and forever.” In telegram 3242 from Kabul, sent one hour and 45 minutes later, the Embassy reported that “the coup appeared to have been triggered by Daoud’s arrest of the Khalq leadership.” The Embassy was unsure at that juncture whether or not Daoud had been killed during the fighting. The telegram included the text of a statement by the Revolutionary Military Force of Afganistan: “The foreign policy is in accordance with the respect and reservation of the Islamic religion, democratic and individual independence, and the progressive development of the country.” (National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D780180–0719 and D780180–0882, respectively)
  3. The meeting was rescheduled for May 15–20 in Havana.